Coalition chairman MK David Bitan reportedly considered resigning from the Knesset after police presented him with the evidence in a wide-ranging investigation into suspected bribery, fraud, money laundering and breach of trust on his part.
According to a report Tuesday by Hadashot TV news, acquaintances of Bitan, a Likud heavyweight and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, advised him against the move, warning that without his parliamentary immunity he would likely be arrested immediately.
Dozens of suspects, including Rishon Lezion city officials, local businessmen, and organized crime figures, have been arrested or questioned in the probe, dubbed Case 1803.
Bitan is suspected of having taken bribes from crime organizations in Rishon Lezion after he became the deputy mayor of the city in 2005, and of diverting a construction tender toward the son of an acquaintance in exchange for money, among other offenses.
He has been questioned three times by police at the Lahav 433 national crime unit headquarters in Lod, each session lasting several hours.
Channel 10 reported Tuesday that officers secretly filmed Bitan’s wife, Hagit Bitan, leaving a Rishon Lezion furniture store linked to the case while carrying an envelope investigators believe was stuffed with cash.
Two suspects held by police received warnings from the criminal underworld not to turn state’s witness in the case, the report said.
Four suspects have told investigators they either gave money, or planned to give money, to the furniture store owner, Moshe Yosef, who is himself a key suspect, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.
On Sunday police spent hours examining files at the store, which is believed to have been used as a front for money laundering.
It was not the first time police visited the store. Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that when the investigation into Bitan began, officers set up hidden cameras and recording devices in the store, and, based on the evidence they collected, built up a very strong case against him.
Police footage from the hidden cameras reportedly showed Bitan counting large sums of money, and appearing to use the store as a bank to withdraw cash. The clips also allegedly showed him warmly greeting Husam Jarushi, a member of what police consider to be one of the most powerful, and violent, of Israel’s crime families.
Bitan told police during his interrogations that he didn’t know Jarushi, asserting that if he had met him it was only in passing at some political event. Jarushi has also been arrested.
On Friday it was reported that Yosef, the store owner, is suspected of handling bribes Bitan received from contractors. Police are reportedly hoping to convince Yosef to become a state’s witness in light of the large body of evidence against him. He was remanded on Monday for an additional eight days.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is himself under police investigation for suspected corruption, has publicly backed Bitan, saying on Sunday that Bitan enjoys “the presumption of innocence.”
“I respect him, and I really like him,” Netanyahu said told reporters in Paris, where he was on a two-day visit. “He’s doing excellent work as coalition whip.”